Monday, March 31, 2014

"A sense of immanent meaning or significance"

I spent a good part of a day in February with Richard Mabey, and wrote a piece for The Telegraph, which was just published (see note). Here's a passage from Mabey's biography of Flora Thompson that I particularly liked:
The naturalist William Hudson wrote an essay in 1918 about what he called the animism of children. "By animism I do not mean the theory of a soul in nature," he explained, "but the tendency or impulse or instinct, in which all myth originates to animate all things; the projection of ourselves into nature; the sense and apprehension of an intelligence like our own but more powerful in all visible things. It persists and lives in many of us, I imagine, more than we think, or more than we know, especially those born and bred amid rural surroundings...
Hudson reckons he was about eight years old (much the same age as Flora at her most sensually alert) when the raw intensity of his registration of colour, scent and sound -- "the sparkle of sunlight on water, the taste of milk, of fruit, of honey, the smell of dry or moist soil, or herbs and flowers; the mere feel of a blade of grass" -- began to take on a sense of immanent meaning or significance, as if these objects and phenomena contained some impalpable essence beyond their physical reality. They become talismans and totems, sometimes even slightly magical.

Note: The Telegraph version omitted the passages in black below:
Mabey, 73, is in vigorous form for a man recently laid low by a virus that was leaving him quickly fatigued, and loving life in Norfolk. He moved here around a dozen years ago after spending most of his life in the Chilterns, and after an episode of a severe depression which he documents the highly acclaimed memoir Nature Cure (2005). The day before I visit he has been up on the great beaches of the North Norfolk coast. It's a vast place that is always changing, he says, and one he has visited many times over the years since student days. Yesterday birds that are usually there at this time of year were, he says, strangely absent. The Brecks (East Anglia's heathland) and the Broads (its magical waterland) are also a short drive away and frequent destinations...
But the non-human world, so far away from the political nightmares of that time, was never far away for Mabey. While working as an editor at Penguin, he wrote Food for Free (1972), a guide for foragers of wild berries, fungi and shoreline delights. The book was an immediate success and has never been out of print. “It is my pension fund,” he says with a smile, adding that foraging is not the sole preserve of hippies. During the Second War, the government issued an advisory pamphlet while the Vicomte de Maudit stirred phlegmatic British hearts and stomachs with They Can't Ration These!
Mabey's second book, The Unofficial Countryside, helped to define a new, edgier kind of nature writing. Inspired by Adventure Lit Their Star, Kenneth Alsop's 1949 account of how the little ringed plover established itself “in the messy limbo which is neither town nor country (...sand pits, quarries, reservoirs, sewage farms...on clinker among junked car bodies as well as natural river shingle),” The Unofficial Countryside was republished in 2010 with an introduction by Iain Sinclair, doyenne of British psychogeographers, and is an important text for anyone thinking about the “rambunctious garden” or feral future of non-human life under enormous pressure from humanity...

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The unanswerable question

The apparent confusion between the reality of dreams and the reality of waking life... allows writers to use dreams to question reality without having to attempt an impossible imitation of a dreamlike state. In one of his unpublished notebooks, Coleridge famously wrote:
If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awake—Aye! and what then?
So unanswerable is the question, so neatly does it blend the reality of dreams and the reality of waking life, that H. G. Wells, in order to lend verisimilitude to the nightmarish fantasy of The Time Machine, borrowed Coleridge’s unsettling supposition and concluded his story with just such a flower.
-- Alberto Manguel